From the Belgo-Congolese artist-activist in Manchester protesting Heathrow’s mistreatment of people of colour to the founder of a ground-breaking hip-hop festival on home soil, we’re rounding off the year with a 25-strong selection of notable Belgian personalities who have left their mark on 2017. Starting with Part 1, we’re introducing the first 8 of some of this year’s strongest personalities.

Photographer Eva Donckers (c).

Bernard Leboucq, for bringing Brussels’ buvettes back to life

My partner and I won the three tenders that were put out by the Region to manage the snack bars – known to locals as buvettes – that you’ll find in some of Brussels’ parks.  And, as I make enough money with Brasserie de la Senne, I decided to not draw any salary from the buvettes. That being said, things do need to change in the hospitality sector. It’s a sensitive subject but it needs to be discussed. Indeed, given the way employment is taxed these days in Belgium, it’s become close to impossible to offer customers quality service and products as well as pay employees correctly and still manage to pay yourself reasonably. The fiscal system really needs to change. But, putting this aside, 2017 was a great year overall.

Bernard (42) is the founder of Brasserie de la Senne and manager of three buvettes throughout Brussels.

Jef Willem, for co-founding Belgium’s premier hip hop festival, Fire is Gold

There are plenty of festivals that integrate a few hip hop acts into their line-up, but with Fire is Gold our team wanted to create something exclusively dedicated to urban culture in all its forms, embracing it as a lifestyle as a whole. This means that we don’t only include music but also fashion, sports and art and, as far as I know, it’s the only festival of its kind in Belgium. The urban communities in Toronto, L.A. or Tokyo for example are all very much alive and active, which inspired us to launch our own project here. Belgium is always a little bit behind when it comes to these kinds of trends although the response to the festival has been great for a first edition, and we got the feeling that we were able to do something people had really been waiting for, that there is a demand. It’s been a big year for me career-wise and I really feel as though I’ve accomplished a lot.

Jeff (26) is co-founder of Fire Is Gold, a festival dedicated to urban culture that saw its first edition this year.

Lander Lenaerts, for his contribution to Belgian jazz

In 2015 I started working together with Sdban Records on the compilation album Let’s Get Swinging – Modern Jazz in Belgium 1950-1970, which came out this year. People have called it a time document, and I hope that in fifty years from now, people will still think the same. Being able to finally hold a physical copy of the compilation, which I had dreamed of for the past ten years, felt like the definitive confirmation that this is what I really wanted to do. Thanks to the compilation, I also got to appear on Worldwide FM with Paul Bradshaw and interview two legendary jazz musicians, Philip Catherine and Cel Overberghe, which was nothing short of amazing. On a more personal level, 2017 was also marked by the birth of my first daughter.  In Dutch, we’d say that 2017 was a “boerenjaar” for me, and that to me sums up the year pretty well.


Lander (31) is a Belgian jazz musician, curator, writer, DJ and radio broadcaster based in Lubbeek.

Giacomo Esposito, for injecting some class into Brussels’ nightlife

The opening of Kumiko was a huge thing for me this year. It was an interesting process to get it to where it is today, replacing the former Bravo whilst building on its original concept and clientele. As its artistic director, I try to create the overall atmosphere and reach people through my musical program. I’m also one of the founders of music collective Plein Sud, whose mission is to unite people around live streams, parties, exhibitions and more. Brussels is a multicultural city – the capital of Europe – and its diversity of cultures, origins and mentalities rubs off on us Brusselaars. More than anything, growing up in the city probably opened me up to more art forms and music genres than I’d usually be exposed to, which in turn very much shaped what I do today. With so much going on this year, 2017 was definitely the year of no sleep for me and I can safely say that I surpassed my limits. Professionally and personally I learned to endure punches and to keep going.

Giacomo (24) is the artistic director at Brussels’ Kumiko bar and co-founder of Plein Sud, a community-based music collective.

Médor, for telling the truth

We’re a cooperative company with more than 900 co-operators, which means we don’t rely on any public support or private funds – only readers and subscribers. Médor is based on a philosophy of honesty, investigations, cooperation, a certain Belgian mood and potato chips. We’ve done our fair share of investigative journalism, publishing stories on, for instance, the construction of a big mall without having the consent of the population, mafia systems, oligarchs, fake news in Belgium, air quality and also about parallel imports of medicine and its consequence on social security. Overall, 2017 was a great year for us. Subscribers continued following us, new co-operators kept coming and we were rewarded with a couple of prizes for both our editorial work and our cooperative enterprise. Key moments were also our biannual retreats with our core members in the countryside as well as the yearly general assembly, which remains one of the best moments to meet with our co-operators. All in all, we’ve proven that we’re not just an accident.

Médor is a quarterly investigative magazine based in Brussels that published its eighth edition in September.

Naomi Mabita, for full-frontal activism and advocacy

I’m a visual artist, amongst other things, and try to use various mediums to engage an audience in dialogues about topics such as colonialism, pseudo-science in the beauty industry, capitalism and the military industrial complex. I think I’m mainly led by the philosophy “don’t be a dick,” but if I were to label myself I’d say I’m anti-fascist and pro-blackity-black. Indeed, I find it very difficult to stay still, and my class privilege is that which allows me not to – at least for the time being. Besides finishing my studies this year, I also experienced my first ever court case, which we lost. In August of 2016, a group of us headed to Heathrow Airport on behalf of BLMUK, and formed a human chain in front of the airport to raise awareness on the mistreatment of people of colour at the hands of the state. Something Heathrow is guilty of too, with thousands of black and brown migrants deported without due process or regard to their safety. I personally chose to take part in the action to give BLMUK and police brutality in the UK more media coverage. Being locked in a cell for half a day was not a great experience, nor was having the police lie on my official reports. But it’s also not surprising: this is what we’re up against, everywhere. On a more personal note, we also welcomed another sibling to the world this year, which adds to my drive for an anti-racist practice. I consider my four younger siblings to be under my protection, and as an older sister it’s my duty to do whatever is within my reach to best equip them with the knowledge to navigate through racism and “crapitalism”. I don’t really know what lies ahead for the world in 2018, but all I can say is that I will continue to be my unapologetic black self and try to contribute to making the world slightly less shit.

Naomi (24) is a Belgo-Congolese visual artist that was born in Brussels and currently resides in Montenegro. She previously was based in Manchester, where she grabbed national headlines in 2017 with her participation in a BLM protest.

Niels Coppens for adding Biestebroek to Toestand’s ever-expanding portfolio of re-purposed spaces

2017 was a challenging year: I came back to Brussels following a six-month international residency that had a huge influence on me, and immediately started working on Biestebroek, a new Toestand project that I manage as a coordinator. It was very exciting because I had the opportunity and the freedom to shape something from scratch. Thanks to Thermokis, a collective from Kosovo, we were invited to Documenta 14 in Kassel – and I’m very grateful that we got the opportunity to be part of this kind of contemporary art festival, it shows that art can be open and alive. I am happy that those who are working on contemporary issues and trying to generate creative alternatives can have an added value to this format. For me, dialogue is very important, and not only with like-minded people but also with those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. The biggest challenge in the coming year will be relocating the Biestebroek project, which is going very well so far.

Niels (28) is co-founder of Toestand, an initiative dedicated to giving abandoned buildings a new lease of life.

Olga Zrihen for steering the Publifin commission in the right direction

This year was a very challenging one for me, with two key moments standing out. First, we had the CETA treaty which, due to a legal specificity, the regional parliament of Wallonia was required to ratify. Indeed, all EU countries’ national parliaments have to approve the treaty before it’d come into effect – and when Wallonia wouldn’t agree with some of its major points, we were forced to fight the Commission who was pressuring us to accept it without much thought. Together with former President Paul Magnette, I pushed the topic forward in the parliament for my party, and luckily we ended up being heard. The second significant challenge of 2017 was being nominated president of a special commission set up to examine the financial scandal unfolding at the heart of the Publifin affair, which had tremendous political repercussions. This meant four months of long and difficult hearings with, in the end, a lot at stake. In the end, we drafted a high-level report which will change the relations between authorities and institutions, and better control the use of public money for the future. Because, let’s face it, as politicians, we really need to regain the trust of the population.

Olga (64) is a Belgo-Moroccan politician, Member of Parliament and currently president of the Publifin commission.